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When love leaves – ‘Marriage Story’

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When does the story of a marriage end? And how should it be told when it does?

That’s the fundamental question behind “Marriage Story,” the latest offering from writer/director Noah Baumbach. The film – which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson – is a portrait of a marriage in dissolution, a relationship that has arrived at its expiration date. It is emotionally raw and darkly funny, driven by moments of passion and poignancy.

There are many reasons for two people to choose to be together. There are many reasons – some the same, some altogether different – for two people to choose to stay together. And there are many reasons – a surprising number shared with the previous choices – for two people to choose to break apart. And the underlying reality is that the story of a marriage has two sides … and the truth lives somewhere in the middle.

“Marriage Story” is unrelenting and discomfiting – and one of the year’s best films.

Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) are a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson, “After the Wedding”). Charlie is an acclaimed director of avant-garde theatre; Nicole is an actress who gave up burgeoning movie stardom for the stage. They are devoted parents and passionate artists.

And they are struggling.

When Nicole receives – and accepts – an offer to film a pilot in Los Angeles, it serves as something of a final straw. She takes Henry with her to L.A., where despite the urgings of her mom (Julie Hagerty, “Noelle”) and sister (Merritt Wever, “Welcome to Marwen”), she pulls the trigger and takes out divorce papers.

She enlists the services of Nora Fanshaw (Larua Dern, TV’s “Big Little Lies”), an excellent divorce lawyer who gently but firmly urges Nicole toward more and more demands. Charlie goes through a couple of attorneys, including the amiable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, TV’s “Ray Donovan”) and the cutthroat Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, TV’s “Shades of Blue”).

Despite their initial desires to conduct everything without lawyers, things soon get heated between Nicole and Charlie. Each of them has their own needs and desires; finding common ground proves to be more difficult than either could have anticipated. They do the best that they can as far as Henry goes, but the dynamic between them threatens to become irreparably toxic.

Each of them deals with the disintegration of their relationship differently, though their genuine care for one another never disappears. Of course, as this story – and so many stories like it – proves, caring for one another isn’t always enough to save a marriage. And the anger and hurt that comes with an ending can’t always be controlled; people lash out, saying things that aren’t truly meant but nevertheless can never be fully unsaid.

Finding a place of compromise, one that does right by their child while also being true to their own wants, places heavy demands on the two of them – demands that they struggle to meet. All the while, each of them is left to deconstruct the journey that led to this place and wonder what – if anything – could have been done. For years, they’ve defined themselves through one another; now, they must figure out who they are on their own.

Baumbach’s films have a tendency to focus on relationship dynamics; “Marriage Story” is no exception. He has a gift for dialogue that is both intellectually dense and emotionally fraught, words that encapsulate the feelings that come from the pain of fading love. Aesthetically, he finds ways to tighten and insulate his scenes, evoking a feeling of almost-uncomfortable closeness. That claustrophobic vibe makes for a striking fit in presenting an unraveling marriage.

All of this is amplified by the presence of some absolutely electrifying performances. Adam Driver continues to build his case as one of his generation’s finest film actors. In his hands, Charlie becomes an object of both scorn and pity, his narcissistic tendencies overwhelming a tremendous capacity for empathy. His performance is huge and raw, packed with emotional power that explodes forth in varied ways. Johansson’s Nicole elicits the eyes-open energy of someone choosing to retake control of her life – personal, professional, creative, you name it. She delicately balances the feeling of regret with a refusal to allow those regrets to define her. The two of them together are incredible, with an intensity of charisma unlike anything else we’ve seen in films this year.

Oh, and then there’s the rest of the cast. No big deal. Just Laura Dern absolutely dealing, throwing high-90s heat every second she’s on screen. Ray Liotta’s Jay is a shiny-suited shark, while Alan Alda gently draws the eye every time he appears. Julie Hagerty is awesome as Nicole’s mom who is still a little too close to Charlie. Wallace Shawn absolutely slays as a member of Charlie’s theatre company. And so on and so on – just a dynamite collection of performers.

“Marriage Story” is by no means a feel-good film. It is two people writing the conclusion to a love story that they never expected to end. Watching a marriage end can lead one to look inward and gauge the state of one’s own relationships – and the sad reality is that not everyone will like what they see. There’s real, visceral impact here, courtesy of Baumbach’s powerful dialogue being delivered by two immensely talented actors.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 07:05

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